UBC Library has acquired of one of the world’s most extraordinary books.
Printed in a limited edition of only 438 copies, the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer was published by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press in 1896. Morris, a pivotal figure in the arts and crafts movement, spent four years designing what he believed to be the ideal book. Celebrated for its unique type, lavish decorative borders and remarkable illustrations, the poet William Butler Yeats later described it as the “most beautiful of all printed books.”
“The acquisition of this copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer is a significant coup for UBC,” said Gregory Mackie, assistant professor in UBC’s department of English. “Books like this one almost never come onto the international market, and only 48 copies exist in the world with this particular binding.”
With the acquisition of the Kelmscott Chaucer, UBC joins the likes of Oxford, Stanford, Cambridge, Princeton and other top ranking universities.
“The acquisition of a book like this is an example of the Library and the department of English striving for a new level of excellence,”
said Katherine Kalsbeek Head, Rare Books and Special Collections. “The fact that we were able to acquire this copy, in this condition, in this binding is astounding.”
Purchased for $202,000 USD, the book is one of UBC’s most valuable holdings within Rare Books and Special Collections (RBSC). It joins other famous books at RBSC, such as the Second Folio of Shakespeare, donated by Walter Koerner in 1960, and bolsters the library’s world-renowned Colbeck Collection of 19th-century literature, which includes several extremely rare Kelmscott Press books.
A joint acquisition by UBC Library and the faculty of arts, the Kelmscott Chaucer was purchased after two years of fundraising efforts, which included a substantial donation from the B.H. Breslauer Foundation of New York. “There was an amazing show of support for bringing this book to UBC.” said Kalsbeek, noting that UBC faculty, community members and UBC’s Centennial Initiatives Fund also made contributions toward the acquisition.
Perhaps most exciting is what this acquisition means for UBC students. “Our faculty has expressed real interest in incorporating the book into their course material, whether they’re teaching Chaucer or teaching book design,” said Kalsbeek.
Professor Mackie, for one, looks forward to using the book in his teaching and watching his students respond. “I think one of the things that is most magical about this book is that you open it and immediately get a sense of wonder. I think we tend to undervalue that nowadays,” he said. “That’s a great experience for students, especially undergraduates, when they are coming to university and learning about new things, to be really wowed by something. And this book has that wow factor in spades.”